Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Putting Lipstick On A Pig

You’re working hard at your job of managing a group that builds ‘products’ for your customers, trying to do what has been asked of you using some internally developed specialized tools you’ve been told (forced) to use.  These tools haven’t changed substantially in years, other than minor tweaks and enhancements, but the projects you've been asked to use them on to meet your customers’ increasingly more demanding needs have gotten progressively more complex and difficult to implement, and the tools just aren’t up to the jobs.  

You’ve tried to make it known and clear to those in the organization that created these specialized tools that they are increasingly more inadequate to do the ever more complex jobs.  You’ve listed in detail what is needed to effectively and efficiently carry out your jobs and you’ve prioritized your needs to indicate what is needed most all the way down to what would be nice to have but isn’t as critical.  However, that organization has their own list of priorities to work on, and your group’s needs just never seem to make it to their list of priorities.  

You escalate to your management chain to try to bring some pressure to bear, explaining that your group’s productivity and efficiency is suffering greatly due to these outdated tools, and the loss of productivity and efficiency leads directly to loss of revenues and profits that are critical to company growth and success.  It appears your concerns are finally being heard and that something will be finally be done.  Yea!  But then you hear that the way your problems will be addressed is to strap some band aids on the existing inadequate tools, and that what is being proposed will barely make a dent in the problems you’ve been having, much less the problems you see coming from even more complex customer needs.  

From your perspective, the other organization is trying to put lipstick on a pig (also known as polishing a turd)!  Of course the problem is that when you put lipstick on a pig, you’re still left with a pig.  That is, they’re trying to build upon an inadequate product (the pig) by adding some mostly cosmetic changes (the lipstick) that simply won’t fix the underlying problems you’re seeing.  Their 'fixes' simply won’t address the underlying problems. 

So what can you do when faced with such a situation?

Go with the flow.  Use what you’re given (and you will like it or else!) and try your hardest to make it work.  Of course, it probably won’t, and, since the 'improvements' (lipstick) will have been provided, blame will more than likely be placed more on you than on the inadequate tools you’ve been given to do the job.  Such is life when you go with the flow!

Get creative, where possible.  Work with your team to see what can be done using what you have to improve your productivity and efficiency without depending on another organization to 'help' or just accepting whatever they can provide.  This can include modifying and improving your processes to avoid or overcome some of the shortcomings of the current or ‘lipstick’ed’ tool, or other changes in what you do and how you do it.  In such cases, the creativity of your team can sometimes overcome obstacles previously thought impossible (see Pigasus – When Pigs Fly!).  Give your team their chance to fly, but don’t punish them if the inadequate tools still make this impossible.

Look for alternatives.  Look for other creative ways of getting what’s needed using commercially available products and see if you can cobble together a solution that can somehow work with what you’ve got, and that, while clearly not optimal, is better than what you’ve got today or what you’ll be provided when the ‘lipstick’ is applied to the ‘pig’.  If possible, work with the organization providing the current tools to see if they can help guide such an approach.

Push harder.  Make your case better with concrete examples of what’s really needed and why.  Demonstrate conclusively with a detailed cost/benefits analysis that makes a clear case for doing things the right way rather than using band aids.  Work closely with the organization providing the tools to demonstrate how it is in their and your interest to improve the tool in the proper ways.  Show clearly the adverse impact on revenues and profits, and the costs that can be clearly afforded if the proper tools are provided to overcome the adverse impact.  Ask them to get creative!  Show them ways they can get this done cost effectively without impacting their current roadmap (e.g. by outsourcing and overseeing the work rather than taking it on themselves).  

Outsource entirely.  See if you can find a dedicated outside organization that can cost effectively do the job to enhance the capabilities of the existing tool, or develop all of the capabilities needed for you to effectively and efficiently do your job.  You want an organization that can do this in a dedicated fashion, rather than as an afterthought to the existing organization’s real priorities.  Think of this more as performing minor surgery rather than just applying lipstick.

Think further outside the box.  Think further outside of the box to see if there is an effective way to outsource the work of your team to someone who really has the wherewithal to put things together.  Of course, this could have devastating effects on you and your team, but it may be the best solution for the company overall.  All possibilities must be on the table.

Think even further outside of the box.  I’m not even sure what this could be, but put on your most creative hat and think the unthinkable.  Without imposing limits, what could be done to solve your problems?

We often encounter ‘roadblocks’ in almost every area in corporate work life.  Every organization has their demands, their priorities, and their limitations.  These may well adversely impact other organizations that depend on them.  A common approach is to make incremental changes to something another organization needs in an attempt to kick the problems down the road to avoid doing something more significant now.  Their problems are typically of much greater concern to them than another organization’s problems.  The result is too often putting lipstick on a pig!  Finding effective ways to avoid putting lipstick on a pig is usually more in (almost) everyone’s best interest.

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